Dressmaking – Eighteenth Century Costume

Dressmaking – Eighteenth Century Costume

The costume of the eighteenth century is considered by many to be, as a whole, more graceful than that of any preceding period. At the beginning of the century, about 1711, after an absence of a hundred years, the hoop came once more into fashion, succeeding the puffings and paddings which had given size to the hips.

It is thought that the hoop was brought to England at the time of Queen Anne from some obscure German court, where it had never gone out of fashion. From England it came to France, brought there by some visiting Englishwomen. It was made in a new way and had a new name and a new shape. It was called a panier because it was an open framework made of hoops of straw cord, cane, whalebone, or steel, and fastened together by tapes. It was cupola-shaped at the sides but flat at the front and back. The arches were soon made to spring from the waist outward over the hips so that the wearer could rest her elbows on the hoop. Fulness in the skirt gave the required shape and size at the back. The panier in this shape lasted a long time and attained most extravagant dimensions.

The hoop naturally necessitated many changes in the costume. During the regency (1715-1723) the heavy materials and elaborate decorations of the Louis XIV period were seldom used, and the paniers, probably somewhat on account of their size, were covered by rather plain, full skirts made of stuffs which were light in weight and brilliant in color. Later heavier materials appeared, and there was much decoration, but it was of a lighter, daintier, and more graceful kind.

During the entire century we find the same pointed bodice with the round neck line or with the square neck and panel front. All the sleeves were short. Many were of the fashion which had its beginning in the last reign. These came to the elbow and were finished with deep, wide cuffs, full ruffles of lace, or with fan-shaped tucks of the material of the sleeve. Others were made entirely of ruffles of narrow lace-sewed in rows around the sleeve. Skirts were made with and without panels, but there were no puffings. Both bodice and skirt were much trimmed with ribbons, laces, and artificial flowers. There were such materials as thin silks, India cottons, dimity, muslin, and gauze, and with these were used trimmings of lace, ribbon, and taffeta; the latter formed shirrings or was pinked or cut to form flowers or petals. Gathered net or wash blond also became popular as a decoration.

Long mantles, cape-shaped, were worn. Hoods were generally attached to the mantles, but there were also many head-coverings of gauze, net, and batiste. The hair was done simply and often decorated with aigrettes of jewels, of flowers, and ribbon.

About 1730 there appeared those graceful fashions which are generally referred to as Watteau. These did not replace the fashions in vogue but shared the general favor equally with them. There were many variations in the Watteau costumes, but they were generally loose, flowing gowns without a defined waist line. The material was arranged in the back across the shoulders in wide box plaits, which fell unconiined to the floor and usually formed a train. The front was shaped to fit the figure somewhat to the waist line, and below that was cut sufficiently full to cover gracefully the large panier.

Girdles were generally worn with the costumes, especially if the bodice was not fitted at the front, but, like the back, was free from the shoulders to the ground. Underpet-ticoats were frequently worn and were displayed by puffing or draping the overdress at the hips. The dresses were also frequently arranged to open at the centre front and form a panel in both waist and skirt. In these dresses the over-skirt was often puffed to form two long, wing-shaped draperies at the back and a shorter one over each hip. Garments of this style were later called polonaise. All kinds of materials and many charming decorations of ribbon and lace were used. The overdress was frequently of flowered material while that of the underdress was plain.

The Louis XV costume is considered by many as at its best from 1750 to 1770, when fashion was chiefly guided by Mme. Pompadour, the favorite of the king. At this period many charming costumes were made in the flowered silks which bear her name. Much decoration was used, but it was dainty and graceful in character and gave no appearance of stiffness or heaviness to the costume. Throughout the entire period the paniers had been steadily increasing in size, until at the end of the reign of Louis XV (1774) skirts were often sLx feet wide, from right to left, and eighteen feet in circumference.

Because many of the costumes worn over these large paniers were short, much attention was given to both shoes and stockings. White stockings with colored or gold or silver clocks were worn with shoes made of beautiful materials, heavily embroidered, and adorned with jewelled buckles.

For a brief period (1774-1792) a queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was also the queen of fashion. Under her guidance, however, costume seems not to have improved. The two types of dresses were still worn, but they became exaggerated in style and much of their charm was lost.

When the separate skirts and bodices were worn the skirts were very full and much trimmed. They were gathered at the waist and were held out by the large hoops. They seldom had trains.

For the other style of dress, the Watteau, the bodice and the skirt drapery were cut in one piece and were worn over an under-petticoat. The edges of the overdress were usually very much decorated, as was the underpetticoat. The overdress was frequently cut to form a train.

All the bodices were made with extremely tight waists; they were also decollete and generally had an elaborate front panel. In many cases a close-fitting, heavily boned, sleeveless silk under-bodice was used. It was decorated at the front or had attached to it a panel decorated with lace or embroidery. This bodice shaped the figure, and over it was worn the dress itself, which had elbow sleeves and was sufficiently open at the front to show the panel.

Paniers were nearing the end of their reign, and, as if in revenge, they assumed their greatest size; the skirts worn over them were of rich and heavy materials, like brocades, and were made still heavier by wide and narrow flounces, by latticework of lace and ribbon, by plaited frills and scallops, shell-shaped trimmings, bouquets of artificial flowers and fruits, and over all a profusion of lace and ribbon.

Shoes became even more coquettish. They were often made in two colors, embroidered with gold and enriched with jewels. One very popular style of shoe had its back seams garnished with emeralds and diamonds.

The head-dress of Marie Antoinette’s reign was as enormous and absurd as was that of the Middle Ages. At first the hair was built up and an enormous bonnet poised on it. Then, in place of the bonnet came puffs made of the hair itself and decorated with absurdities of every sort. Frequently a high cushion of horsehair formed a foundation over which the hair was drawn. Then row upon row. of puffs was attached. These were made by using plaits of gauze in the meshes of the hair. Eighteen yards was sometimes required for one head-dress. On this erection of puffs was placed a variety of things, representing, it might be, an English park, a poem, a scene from an opera, or an important political event. One head-dress, called La Belle Ponlc, represented in miniature a French ship which had been victorious in battle. These headdresses were so enormous that a woman could not ride in a carriage unless she put her head out of the door or knelt on the floor of the carriage.

About 1778 Marie Antoinette and her royal followers played at farming at the Petit Trianon. An informal costume was required for this, one less cumbersome than that of the court. The general style of the costume was like that adapted from the Watteau period. The paniers were smaller, the skirts shorter. Dainty overdresses were looped up over puffed and ruffled underskirts, and the fichu, which had already become a popular fashion, adorned many of the costumes. It was made in a variety of shapes, of lace, muslin, gauze, and net. Dainty hats were perched on elaborately arranged coiffures, hats which shaded the eyes rand stood up from the hair at the back, showing the rows of puffs. Many women, to finish this costume, carried a shepherdess crook.

These fashions were of rather short duration. As the stormy days of the French Revolution approached some of the gay absurdities of the eighteenth-century costume vanished and in place many women wore a costume masculine in general character and little less exaggerated than the other but in a different way. Styles which were called British, or English, were adopted by many, although not by the queen and her followers. The bodices were long and stiff, with small waists and an exceedingly pointed waist line to which was frequently attached a full peplum. This increased the size of the hips and made the waist appear small.

The sleeves were long and very tight. These waists were often ornamented with large metal buttons and topped by full-ruffled fichus which gave to the wearer an appearance of absurdity and an abnormal silhouette. If paniers were worn they were small and round and had padding at the back to give the effect of a bustle. The skirts were gathered at the waist and fell in straight folds to the floor. Coats were worn with large lapels and triple collars. They were fitted tight to the figure and were long and straight in the back. An enormous amount of hair was still worn and it was surmounted by an enormous hat with large brim and high crown. These masculine costumes were, strangely enough, made up in bright colors, in silks, satins, and cloths. Such colors as lemon, pink, and apple green were popular, while stripes in black and white, wide and exceedingly conspicuous, were frequently used.

The English fashions gave place to simple fashions and simpler materials. The days of the Revolution (17891799) were difficult ones-times were hard, and inexpensive fabrics took the place of the silks and satins. Cotton, India prints, and lawn were used, and such simple materials required rather simple making. Dresses were made somewhat like chemises. They had short waists and the skirts were plain and full with an occasional frill at the bottom. The sleeves were plain and short, and the neck was low. The dresses were adorned with fichus made of gauze or other cheap material and were held in with sashes which had long ends. Corsets and paniers had disappeared.

This simplicity was followed, in the early days of the Directory (i795-1799), by a sudden reaction. The Revolution, and particularly the Reign of Terror (1794-1795), had practically swallowed up everything, the royal family and its followers, tradition, throne, manners, customs, and dress. With everything swept away and little time for reconstruction, fashions were borrowed, as were some of the laws. The men adopted fashions closely resembling those which were earlier called English; the women, however, worshipped antiquity and went back to either Greek or Roman fashions. Many of the women wore straight gowns bound by a girdle worn high up under the bosom. These gowns were frequently cut to be very short in front and training behind and displayed the feet and legs. Many were slit on one side to the hips or were raised above the knee and fastened with a brooch. These simple garments were made of transparent, clinging materials. They were worn with or without chemises. When no chemise was worn, tights were used. These gowns, in true classic fashion, had very small sleeves or none at all. Cameos, brought from Italy to France by Mme. Bonaparte, were used to attach the gowns on the shoulders, to form short sleeves, and to drape the skirt at the side. The arms were covered with bracelets as were also, in many instances, the legs. The colors were delicate shades of blue, pink, and lemon. In addition to this scanty costume an enormous cravat was often worn about the throat, sometimes covering the chin. This fashion was borrowed from the men. These thin garments were worn in the streets without protection other than the shawls and scarfs which were then coming into great favor.

In arranging the hair many women chose a goddess and copied her coiffures from the statues in the museums.

Many coiffures and many toilets were named after some of the various terrible happenings of the Reign of Terror. The head-coverings were of many kinds; they were borrowed not only from the antique but from every other possible source. One fashion much worn later, under the Empire, that of the flat-crowned turban, was said to have been copied from the head-dress of the Turkish ambassador stationed in Paris. The shoes resembled the sandals worn by the Greek and Roman women. They were frequently red and were held in place by ribbon lacings.

Near the end of the Directory, costume, while still classic in form, no longer showed a tendency toward exaggeration or eccentricity. The materials were not transparent; the shawl, introduced after the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon, was much worn and, when well draped, added to the elegance of the costume.

All the simplicity and charm of line of the directoire costume at its best was maintained throughout the Consulate (1799-1804). The materials were more expensive but cut as simply. They were India mulls, muslins, and lawns, all of beautiful, fine quality. The skirts were usually longer than before, were sometimes cut with trains, and had much dainty embroidery at the hems. The bodices were frequently embroidered on waist and sleeve to match the skirts and with them were worn fine lace collars. Many of these tiny decollete bodices were made separate from the long, straight skirts and were of different materials.

The spencer, a tiny coat with short waist and long sleeves, was much worn and became exceedingly popular. It provided the covering which the abbreviated waist and sleeves of the gown frequently lacked. The cashmere shawls of brilliant colors were also very popular. The hair-dressing in general was still copied after that of the Roman women. A few ringlets were worn about the face; the hair was knotted at the back and ornamented with golden fillets and nets embroidered with pearls. Cameos, corals, and mosaics were chiefly used for jewelry.

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